The Art of Starting Over

Mastery is satisfying. But sometimes the real pleasure is in returning to square one.

By Rebecca Lawton
This time, however, I’d be modest and unassuming. I’d even request a refresher on my previous lesson. I’d start over. It helped to remember a basic teaching from Zen master and author Shunryu Suzuki that I’d learned years before in my inner-athlete days: "In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s there are few." I’d open myself to new possibilities by becoming a beginner again.As before, the session began on the rowing machines. I sat down with nothing in mind, shadowing the movements of the other students. The stroke? I listened as the instructor broke it down into several small movements.As I followed her guidance, I discarded my previous notions the moment they entered my mind. Where before I had been impatient to get out on the water, this time I applied myself to the rowing machine with diligence. When she insisted we keep our knees down until the very last part of the stroke, I made myself forget that rowing rafts required a deep knee bend just to initiate a stroke and get a bite of water. When she suggested we control our stroke by wrapping our little fingers over the ends of the oar handles, I ignored my prior training to do just the opposite to avoid pinching my pinky. I did as I was instructed. My intent was to learn something new.When we were ready, we pushed off from shore in an eight-woman shell. There was that moment of pure pleasure, the heady feeling of floating. Away from land, we glided over the water as a leaf drifts on the wind. My own performance wasn’t perfect, but I was in sync with the others; I had a strong, if studied, stroke; and I felt the rush of adrenaline I always get in boats. Not only that, the instructor noticed my improvement and said,"We have a good little rower here!"A beginning rower at that. Rebecca Lawton is the author of Reading Water: Lessons from the River. She lives in Vineburg, California.Originally published in MORE magazine, July/August 2006.

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